‘Invisible’ children let down by schools – the humongous achievement gap

In the news today, Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw reports that many of the poor children being left in schools now are in suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts as opposed to the bigger cities.

In a speech, Sir Michael Wilshaw said such pupils were often an “invisible minority” in schools rated good or outstanding in quite affluent areas.

He added, “Today, many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts. Often they are spread thinly, as an ‘invisible minority’ across areas that are relatively affluent. These poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching. They coast through education until, at the earliest opportunity, they sever their ties with it.”

Last year, statistics show that amongst all pupils, 59% of children achieved 5 ‘good’ GCSEs including Maths and English. Of the 1.2 million children who are on Free School Meals (FSM), only 36% achieve the same results.

Sir Michael has proposed some recommendations aimed at closing this achievement gap between these two particular groups of children. “National Service Teachers”, he says, should be employed by central government to teach in “schools in parts of the country that are currently failing their most disadvantaged pupils”. And he is calling for smaller, “sub-regional” versions of the London Challenge, the initiative which ran in the capital in the 2000s and is credited with turning around many schools. Under this Labour policy, schools were encouraged to help each other, with successful schools, heads and teachers working with those in less successful schools with similar intakes and circumstances.

The chief inspector also:

Confirmed that schools will not be rated as outstanding by inspectors if pupils on free school meals fall significantly behind others
Warned that schools will be inspected earlier than planned if poorer children there are not doing well.
Called for data to be published on progress made in primary schools by children between reception and age seven.
Recommended ways of closing the achievement gap in further education or on apprenticeships.

The government has also attempted to close this achievement gap by introducing a system known as the pupil premium, where schools were given money for each pupil who is on Free School Meals. This premium currently stands at around £600, but the good news for schools is that this premium is on the up from September. The government has announced that the premium will rise to £900. A Department for Education spokesman said: “Closing the unacceptable attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is at the heart of our reforms. That is why we introduced the pupil premium, worth £2.5bn per year by 2015, to target additional funding for disadvantaged pupils. Ofsted itself has increased its focus on how schools use the pupil premium to narrow gaps in their inspections.”

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg is unsurprisingly critical of the government’s policies. He said his party’s plans were to increase collaboration between schools to improve standards, as Sir Michael recommended, but those of the government encouraged schools to “go it alone”. “This gap narrowed under Labour and Michael Wilshaw is right to say that our policies, such as London Challenge in which successful schools helped struggling ones, were key to this,” he said. “Labour will ensure all schools work together to raise standards for every child.”

The idea of isolated communities is not a new problem. The underachievement of poor rural children has been around for years, according to the head of the teachers’ union ATL, Mary Bousted.

It had been highlighted in a 2008 report but had not been the focus of government attention “for too long”, she told BBC’s Breakfast programme.

One of the main factors was the isolation of schools and communities, particularly in coastal areas, where there were low wages, high worklessness, children not prepared for learning and children being moved in and out of schools, she said.

Such schools needed extra help and interventions, she added.

She also spoke of the “hidden” poor who were being taught in leafy suburbs among mostly children from affluent homes.

These schools often lacked the expertise or experience of inner-city schools of working with deprived children, she said.

Head teachers’ association ASCL, said “parachuting teachers in to short-term placements” would be a “sticking plaster” and what was needed was a co-ordinated national strategy and the long-term support and assistance inner city schools had had.

This is not to say that all schools are failing our disadvantaged children. Schools can and have turned things around. For example, Platanos College in Stockwell, South London, where around 60% of their children are on Free School Meals, has gone from around 11% of all pupils achieving 5 GCSEs at Grade C or above in 2000, to 80% of all children achieving 5 good GCSEs, with teenagers on Free School Meals only achieving a couple of percentage points less at 77%, according to Deputy Head Michael Rush.

Mr Rush adds: “If you look at our intake, we don’t have an option not to target the disadvantaged kids as they make up a high proportion of our students. We have had to look seriously at how to close the gap and raise the achievement of all children.”

He said the school’s strategies included having good information about children’s abilities through regular testing and then targeting them with the right support. Children are grouped by ability and there is an emphasis on getting the basics of English and maths right, plus extra classes at weekends and in the holidays – especially for the GCSE years. Mr Rush said data was important – with the school educating children and parents about the various levels – and that all pupils were set “very challenging targets”.

I find this quite interesting, because I am not a huge fan of regular testing, as those who have read my post ‘Do we put too much pressure on kids?’ will know, but this example is almost a perfect justification for using it. It does raise the question of should all schools do this, but for me this largely depends on the children, as it is clear that not all children thrive under exam pressures, myself being one of those.

What do you think? Should regular testing be used to support less well off children? What about holiday and weekend classes? Some interesting points to consider.

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